Similarities between writing and running | Sunday Observer

Similarities between writing and running

11 October, 2020

Author – Haruki Murakami
Translation – Philip Gabriel
Publisher – Vintage Books

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running is a memoir written by a world famous Japanese postmodern novelist, Haruki Murakami. This is the only memoir written by him and it deals with his running where he ends up at the New York City Marathon, a solo course from Athens to Marathon and many other world famous City Marathons. The book starts with an interesting forward given by him. There he says:

“… this is a book about running, not a treatise on how to be healthy. I’m not trying here to give advice like, ‘Okay everybody – let’s run every day to stay healthy!’ Instead, this is a book in which I’ve gathered my thoughts about what running has meant to me as a person. Just a book in which I pondered various things and think out loud.”

Yes, the book does not describe the elements in running as a sport, but brings forth his random thoughts and feelings about writing about running. He says he has no intention of defeating another runner in his long running: “…. I’m not much for team sports. That’s just the way I am. When I play soccer or baseball – actually, since becoming an adult this is hardly ever – I never feel comfort…. when it comes to a game against someone, the competitive aspect makes me uncomfortable…” (Page 8)

What Murakami is trying to say is that a writer is a lonely and introverted person who cannot go against or compete with another. This is why he chose long running as his sport or escape via media, where you don’t essentially want to beat other runner: “Marathon runners will understand what I mean. We don’t really care whether we beat any other particular runner. World–class runners, of course, want to outdo their closest rivals, but for your average, every day runner, individual rivalry isn’t a major issue.” (Page 9)

As he describes, most ordinary runners are more motivated by an individual goal, more than anything a time is the target they want to beat. “As long as he can beat the time, a runner will feel he’s accomplished what he set out to do…” (Page 10)

The most interesting fact that Murakami points out is he compares this (long distant running) with his literary life: “In the novelist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as winning or losing. Maybe numbers of copies sold, awards won, and critics’ praise serve as outward standards for accomplishment in literature, but none of them really matter. What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.” (Page 10)

In this way, Murakami describes about the tasks of a fiction writer, not about the running. Then he shows the challenges a writer face and how he is getting along with bad experiences:

“When I’m criticized unjustly (from my viewpoint, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent…. If I’m angry, I direct that anger toward myself. If I have a frustrating experience, I use that to improve myself. That’s the way I’ve always lived. I quietly absorb the things I’m able to, releasing them later, and in as changed a form as possible, as part of the story line in a novel.” (Page 20)

Some critics say a novelist has to be intelligent, because he is engaged in a higher discourse. But Murakami points out that he is not so intelligent: “…. but I’m not the brightest person. I’m the kind who has to experience something physically, actually touch something, before I have a clear sense of it.… I’m a physical, not intellectual, type of person. Of course, I have a certain amount of intelligence – at least I think I do. If I totally lacked that there’d be no way I could write novels. But I’m not the type who operates through pure theory or logic, not the type whose energy source is intellectual speculation….” (Page 22)

In this way, Murakami corrects some of the romantic myths about writing. The success of this book lies in the fact that through his writing Murakami cleverly compares the art of writing with his running experiences. The following excerpts bear witnesses to this:

“Running has a lot of advantages. First of all, you don’t need anybody else to do it, and no need for special equipment. You don’t have to go to any special place to do it. As long as you have running shoes and a good road you can run to your heart’s content….” (Page 33)

“… Marathon running is not a sport for everyone, just as being a novelist isn’t a job for everyone. Nobody ever recommended or even desired that I be a novelist – in fact, some tried to stop me. I had the idea to be one, and that’s what I did.” (Page 44)

And there is also much food for thought concerning education in schools in this book which could be very useful for educationalists:

“When I was at school I never much cared about for gym class, and always hated Sports Day. This was because these were forced on me from above. I never could stand being forced to do something I didn’t want to do at a time I didn’t want to do it….

“From elementary school up to college I was never interested in things I was forced to study… As a result, though my grades weren’t the kind you have to hide from people, I don’t have any memory of being praised for getting a good grade or being the best in anything. I only began to enjoy studying after I got through the educational system and became a so-called member of society. If something interested me, and I could study it at my own pace and approach it the way I liked, I was pretty efficient at acquiring knowledge and skills. The art of translation is a good example. I learned it on my own, the pay-as-you-go method. It takes a lot of time to acquire a skill this way, and you go through a lot of trial and error, but what you learn sticks with you.” (Page 34-35)

According to Murakami, “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.” Though it appears to be unusual for us to believe, it is his strong belief on writing.

“I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.” (Page 82)